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Maria J. Kefalas: The Kids Aren’t Alright

Maria J. Kefalas is the author, with Patrick J. Carr, of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America. Kefalas held positions at the Brookings Institution, the University of Pennsylvania, and Barnard College before joining the faculty of Saint Joseph's University, where she is associate professor of sociology.

Kefalas With the nation's unemployment rate closing in on 10 percent, its highest level since Ronald Reagan was president,  "celebrating the contributions of American workers to the nation's prosperity" over the recent Labor Day holiday made about as much as sense as drinking a steaming mug of hot chocolate in 95-degree heat.

And though every segment of the economy has been touched by what's going on, working-class jobs for workers without college degrees, especially those in manufacturing, have been taking the biggest hits: Since the recession started, the nation shed 1.9 million manufacturing jobs and 136,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared in a single month, from May to June of this year.  Outsourcing and automation put downward pressures on the demand for blue-collar labor during the best of times. However, in the wake of this historic slow-down, positions that have been absorbed by other workers or taken over by computer robotic systems are never coming back.

Next time you pick up groceries, take note of how many of the supermarket cashiers have been replaced by self-checkout stations, or how, when you call your doctor's office, there's an automated message system instead of a medical secretary getting you a prescription or test results. Experts warn that when this recession ends, we will most likely see yet another jobless recovery, a term used to describe this distinctively post-industrial phenomenon of economic growth that comes without firms hiring workers.

During the nation's recessions, the media pays most of its attention to the hardships of middle-aged workers getting laid off. The reality is that young workers struggle the most in an economic slowdown and face higher unemployment rates than the population as a whole. While 45 to 55 year olds have a lower jobless rate than the rest of the country (6.8 percent), 25 to 34 year olds, the largest segment of the labor force, face a 10.5 percent unemployment rate, experienced the greatest number of job losses since May 2008 (4.5 million), and remain the most likely to be underemployed (more than 2 million hold part-time jobs when they want to work full-time). The news for the youngest workers is actually worse: 15.2 percent of 20- to 24-olds and 24 percent of teenagers are out of work and seeking jobs.

New York Times journalist Steve Greenhouse calls the young people joining the labor force during this historic recession "Generation R." But the challenges facing those trying to find work in a high-tech, knowledge economy, started long before the stock market's "Black Week" last October, when the Dow Jones average dropped 1,874 points in its worst seven day decline in history.

For decades, politicians and social scientists have been talking about the new economy and the challenges created by globalization. Yet, far too many high school grads entered the labor force and expecting to achieve some variation of a middle-class lifestyle with jobs at Ford or building McMansions.

It's not fair to put this on kids.

The nation's chronic underinvestment in young workers lacking credentials from selective four-year college programs has been a silent, creeping problem for decades. Now, it threatens to transform huge numbers of Generation R into a new underclass. So while the much of the developed world assumes that every student earning the equivalent of high school diploma will be bilingual and rushes to prepare their graduates for a global economy where knowledge of computers, medicine, finance, and engineering will win the day: millions of American youngsters enter the labor force not knowing how to read an Excel spread sheet or use a computer for anything but playing iTunes. Too many young Americans still believe having a strong back and work ethic will take care of them. They are playing by 20th century rules in a 21st century economy.

Maybe people will pay attention to the problem now that young college-educated workers find themselves so vulnerable. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's report card: "The US ranks 15th of 29 developed nations in terms of degrees granted: For every 100 students enrolled, countries such as Switzerland, Japan, and Australia award 26 degrees, compared with 18" in this country. Things have gotten even worse for those 1 out of 4 adults with college degrees who find that employers are no longer hiring with so many older workers reluctant to retire after tearing open their 401K statements. Increasingly, college graduates, unable to find higher-paying jobs, are working at places like the Gap and Starbucks, taking jobs once held by their younger, less educated peers. According to Northeastern University's Andrew Sum, 1 out of 2 college graduates, under the age of 25, are employed in jobs that do not need college degrees, the greatest share since 1990.

Could there be a silver lining? Let us pray that the brutal realities of what many people are calling the great recession will wake up complacent, parents, teachers, business civic and leaders, and young people to the dangers of still believing in the 1950's version of the American Dream. During the Great Depression, high school graduation rates increased when young people could not find jobs. Maybe the silver lining for Generation R is that they too will start to commit to higher education. The Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation has called for a national initiative to get everyone to college. This is commendable, the problem is not every young person will or even wants to follow this path. And though everyone recognizes that more Americans need to get to college, our notion of college should not be limited by the selective, ivy covered ones. College is not free in the United States. A far more pragmatic, and efficient, use of resources is to map young people's eagerness to enter the labor force onto realistic training by getting them into affordable two or three year programs based at community colleges.

Anticipating how bad things would be for younger workers, Congress allocated $1.2 billion dollars of the fiscal stimulus package for training and support to provide jobs and training.  But, this should be the start, not the end, of such efforts.

For young people ready and willing to  work, it would be the ultimate betrayal to expect them to pay the highest costs for an economic crisis that they played no part in creating. 

Related: Read "The Rural Brain Drain" by Maria J. Kefalas and Patrick J. Carr at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and reactions on Prairie Progressive, The Rural Blog, and The Sustainable Food Blog.